Offscreen Notes

Is film culture part of our intellectual lives?

January 20th, 2023

Who cannot imagine seeing a movie as part of a fun night with friends? Or seeing a film before or after dinner as part of a romantic date? When does entertainment become art? Are there sources of knowledge in cinema? Can film ask (and answer) philosophical questions? Does art partner us in living our lives?

I admire Saul Bellow, Sigmund Freud, Lee Krasner, Lenny Kravitz, Karl Marx, Mike Nichols, Sidney Pollack, Carly Simon, Troye Sivan, Susan Sontag, Adrienne Rich, Barbra Streisand, and Fred Zinnemann—but, then, I admire a lot of people. The Jews—a people whose roots go back thousands of years, to iron age western Asia, the lands of Israel and Judah, a people sometimes integrated, sometimes separated from others; a people of shared culture and religion built on belief in a special covenant between themselves and the divine—have had a long and difficult history; and yet it was surprising to many of us to see a rise in prejudice against Jews, especially as the prejudice seems anachronistic—crude, paranoid, superstitious—in a modern multicultural and scientific age. Isn’t all prejudice the same prejudice: dislike, disrespect, or distrust rooted in ignorance and suspicion, an intolerance of difference? I, like many, tried to understand this resurgence of enmity, but it made me realize as well that, despite what I had read, despite whatever films of fact or fiction I had seen, I did not know as much about Jewish history as I might have assumed. I began to study anew, seeing Simon Schama’s five-part 2014 Public Broadcasting Service series The Story of the Jews and taking a look at his book of the same name, published by Ecco (2014). How could an ancient bias survive or reborn now? I remembered that Germany had been a modern country, full of civilization, full of artistic and intellectual and scientific accomplishment, when it had been provoked, with Hitler’s encouragement, by old hatred against Jews. I reconsidered films I had already seen, such as Night and Fog (1956) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Schindler’s List (1993) and Never Look Away (2018), and I saw films I had long meant to see such as The Young Lions (1958) and Downfall (2004). I welcomed the Ken Burns three-part documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust (2022). Many such films, whether of fact or fiction, have received attention and discussion: the works seemed to penetrate consciousness. Was awareness fleeting, or lasting? Can everyone be reached, or just enough people to forestall disaster?

Of course resources for further education have been available, remain available: whether books such as Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his experience of incarceration in Nazi Germany, the book Night, published in Argentina in 1956, France in 1958, and in America in 1960; and Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity (2004) by Daniel Boyarin; Between Muslim and Jew (1995) by Steven Wasserstrom; The Invention of the Jewish People (2009) by Shlomo Sand; Makers of Jewish Modernity (2016) edited by Jacques Picard, Jacques Revel, Michael Steinberg, Idith Zertal; and, among many other titles, Final Solution (2016) by David Cesarani; as well as films such as Gentlemen’s Agreement (1945); Exodus (1960); Shoah (1985); The Merchant of Venice (2004); Waltz with Bashir (2008); and Night Will Fall (2014). In addition, there are film festivals focused on Jewish culture and experience: among them, the Charlotte Jewish Film Festival, February 4 through 26, 2023, in Charlotte, North Carolina; the Jewish Film Festival of Southwest Florida, February 5 – March 5, 2023; the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, February 8 – 21, 2023; the Greenville Jewish Film Festival, March 9 – 12, 2023; and the Israel Film Festival November 8 – 19, 2023 in Los Angeles, New York, and Miami; the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 20 – August 6, 2023; and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival June 1 – 11, 2023.

Do we want to know about experiences other than our own? Is film culture part of our intellectual lives? Can it affect our civic life? There are film festivals devoted to other continents and countries, other cultures, other consciousness: the Pan African Film and Arts Festival is in Los Angeles, from February 9 through the 20th in 2023; and the African Film and Arts Festival is June 1 – 5, 2023 in Dallas, Texas; and there are African film festivals in different parts of the globe, including Cambridge, England; New York, New York (USA); and Durban, South Africa—just as there are festivals devoted to Native Americans, to women filmmakers, to gay, lesbian and bisexual experience, and to animated and experimental film.

Films of fact rather than fiction are an acquired taste for some, and for many they are a necessity: in a world in which so many lies are spoken, in which there is as much misinformation as news or truth, works that present what is real become ever more precious. One of the year’s first festivals devoted to documentaries is the Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels (or, International Documentary Festival), often referred to as FIPADOC, held in Biarritz, France, and it is open to film professionals and the general public, January 20 through 28, 2023. There are twelve films listed in the festival’s online program, including Catching the Pirate King by Lennart Stuyck and Maarten Stuyck, about Somali pirates’ attack on merchant ships, including that of a Belgium crew; Casa Susanna by French director Sebastien Lifshitz, about a 1950s refuge for crossdressers in New York; Crows are White by Ahsen Nadem, a Saudi immigrant to the United States, about honesty and negotiating religion and marriage across cultures; and Umberto Eco: A Library of the World by Italian novelist and filmmaker Davide Ferrario, about the writer of The Name of the Rose and his library of more than 30,000 books. Last year Pawel Lozinski, a Polish filmmaker whose oeuvre includes twenty well-received and rewarded documentaries, intimate social portraits including Birthplace, Chemo, Father and Son, Sisters, and You Have No Idea How Much I Love You, won the Grand Prize for The Balcony in the International Documentary category for 2022. Other categories nominate and judge for the best documentary utilizing music; the best French documentary not yet released in France; the best social impact work; the best short film; and the best historical (European) documentary.

Other festivals screening documentaries include: The True/False Film Festival, March 2 – 5, 2023, in Columbia, MO; Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, March 2-12, 2023, in Greece; the Hot Docs Festival, April 27 – May 7, 2023, in Toronto, Canada; the Sheffield Doc Fest, June 14 – 19, 2023, in the United Kingdom; DOK Leipzig, October 8 to – 15, 2023, in Germany; the International Documentary Film Festival, Nov. 8 – 19, 2023, in Amsterdam; and DOC NYC, NOV 8 – 26, 2023, in downtown Manhattan.

Is film culture part of our intellectual lives, or part of our spiritual experience? If suffering were the teacher we are told it is, we would know more than we do. Certainly, if humane culture could help and heal us all as many of us wish, we would be more enlightened, happier, and even more efficient than we are—wiser. If Israeli Jews had learned all they could from their own history, their treatment of the Palestinians would be more kind, if not more just. Isn’t all prejudice that same prejudice? No, sometimes prejudice is built on competition and the aggression and fear of defeat it breeds. Sometimes prejudice is based on past experience, or observation. The Jews and Palestinian Arabs have been fighting for the same territory, each asserting ancient claims. If you know little of this, it is not that hard to find out more. Books on Palestine include: Palestine; A Four Thousand Year History (2018) by Nur Masalha and The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006) by Ilan Pappe; A History of the Arab Peoples (1997) by Albert Hourani; The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine (2020) by Rashid Khalidi; The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (2007) by John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen M. Walt; Palestine: A Personal History (2008) by Karl Sabbagh; The Question of Palestine by Edward Said (1992?), as well as Black Power and Palestine by Michael Fischbach. There are very good films on the Palestinian experience such as Ajami (2009); Bethlehem (2013); A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (2010); Jenin, Jenin (2003); Omar (2014); Out in the Dark (2012); Paradise Now (2005); Private (2004); Rana’s Wedding (2002) Salt of this Sea (2008); and The Time that Remains (2009). And there are, and have been, Palestinian film festivals in Boston, Chicago, Boston, Bristol, Houston, Leeds, London, Toronto, and other cities.

by Daniel Garrett

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